Nearly every Regency romance author, or, as a matter of fact, any Regency romance reader, may want to have a copy of The London Encyclopedia in their library. This large, single volume book is one of the most concise, and perhaps the richest source, on literally thousands of aspects of the history of the British capital city. London is an ancient city, as there is ample evidence that there were human settlements in the area even in prehistoric times. There is no doubt it was a thriving metropolis by the turn of the nineteenth century, and right through the Regency. It has long been a popular setting for romances set in our favorite decade. The London Encyclopedia is a treasure trove of information on many wonderful and fascinating places in the city.
Some of the more useful aspects of The London Encyclopedia . . .
The London Encyclopedia was the brain-child of the Yorkshire-born, London book-seller, Benjamin Weinreb. He had worked in the book trade in London, one way or another, since he had traveled there when he was eighteen years old. Weinreb opened his own book dealing business after World War II. He specialized in books on architecture, but had been interested in the history of London since his arrival in the city in the early 1930s. He sold his entire stock of books in 1968, and soon thereafter, he began compiling an encyclopedia of the history of his favorite city. Some years later, he was joined in his efforts by the noted historian, Christopher Hibbert. In 1983, the pair published the first edition of The London Encyclopedia. This new encyclopedia was published by Macmillan, and ran to over 1,000 pages, with over 5,000 different entries.
The entries in the main portion of the encyclopedia were devoted to the many places and subjects related to the history of the metropolis, and those entries were listed in alphabetical order. From that first edition, those alphabetical listings were by the full, and generally accepted name, of the location or subject. For example, the headquarters of the Surrey County Cricket club, the "Oval Cricket Ground," is listed by that commonly known name. However, the cricket club and other related entities are given as cross-references in the body of the main entry text, noted by the use of Small Capitals. In those instances where another name is known, that is also listed, with a cross-reference given to the main entry. Most entries have at least one cross-reference included in the body of the entry, while many others can have a dozen or more, thus enabling the reader to more fully understand the connections between these various places. and the people who occupied them.
Another useful feature of this encyclopedia is that Weinreb and Hibbert used different fonts to distinguish between those places which were still in existence and those that had been lost by the time of publication. The heading of articles on existing places were printed in a bold serif font. But the headings of articles for places which have been demolished, or otherwise lost, were printed in a Gothic-style font. Clearly, they felt the loss of these places, based on their description of this feature in the front matter of the book:
Names of places and buildings which have been swept away and exist only in historical records and books of reference, . . . are appropriately printed in funereal gothic.
The bulk of the entries in The London Encyclopedia are places in the city, or places that once existed in the city. In addition, certain types of places, such as Burial Grounds, City Livery Companies, Gardens, and outdoor Statues are listed, by type, in alphabetical order. In the few instances where one of these items merits a separate entry, by name, that is also noted. There are also several entries devoted to special topics which had a significant impact on the history of the metropolis, such as Ballooning, Executions, Regiments, Street Cries, Transport, and Water Supply. Each of these entries provides a concise survey of the history of that discrete topic just for London and its immediate environs.
No individual person is given their own entry in this encyclopedia of London history. But many people are mentioned in thousands of the specific entries. Fortunately, Weinreb and Hibbert have included an "Index of People." In this index, every person mentioned in the text of any of the entries is listed, in alphabetical order, by last name, followed by the page numbers for the entries in which those people are mentioned. Some prominent Londoners have a dozen or more page numbers after their name in the Index for People, because they had an impact on a number of places in the city. A researcher looking into the life of a Londoner will certainly want to glance though the Index of People in The London Encyclopedia during the course of their research.
The Index for People is followed by a second, somewhat larger index, the "General Index." This index lists nearly every topic which is touched upon in the The London Encyclopedia. Again, these entries are listed in alphabetical order, usually the name by which they were most commonly known. Researchers are well advised to check every version of any name of which they are aware on a specific topic, to ensure they do not miss any entries which might be of use to them. Not to mention the fact that browsing through this index can lead researchers to any number of interesting topics in the history of London of which they might not be aware.
For those, like me, who enjoy reading encyclopedia entries, reading through The London Encyclopedia is a real treat. All of the entries have some relation to the history of the city, primarily in relation to places in the city. There are many of them which reveal obscure corners and events which have not made it into more traditional histories of the British capital city. Quite a number of taverns and public houses are listed, by name, often with an anecdote of some interesting event which took place there or close by. And at least a few of those places, or events, might very well serve the purposes of an author writing a romance set in London during the Regency period.
The London Encyclopedia is filled with a wide range of illustrations of various places in the great metropolis. These illustrations range from wood-cuts to engravings to early photographs, many of which I have not seen published anywhere else. In later editions, maps of various sections of the city were also included. Though all of the illustrations are in black and white, they are fairly crisp and clear and all are accompanied with informative captions. The best thing about these illustrations is that they are not photographs of a locale as it appears today. Instead, they depict the local as it appeared at some point in the past, giving us a more realistic image of how those places appeared at the time they were most prominent in the history of London.
The first edition of The London Encyclopedia, published in 1983, met with great success and was hailed as the most comprehensive single volume on the history of London ever published. It was reprinted several times after its initial publication. Ten years later, it was revised and updated. It was again revised and updated, in 1995, and once again in 2008, the same year in which Christopher Hibbert passed away. Benjamin Weinreb had passed away in 1999. Over this period, other historians have come on board to ensure the accuracy of the updates and revisions. The London Encyclopedia retains essentially the same format, organization and font scheme for existing and lost historic places as it had since the first edition. It also retains its two indexes, one just for people and the other a general index. Each index is believed to have about 10,000 entries.
Though The London Encyclopedia is not currently in print, there are many copies available online and in a number of used bookstores in both the UK and the US. Quite a number of these copies are available, in both hardcover and paperback, in good condition, for very reasonable prices. Any Regency author or aficionado who does not own a copy of The London Encyclopedia might want to add a copy to their research library. It is a wonderful resource on the history of the great metropolis, particularly if you have an interest in places which were important, or infamous in London over the course of its history.
Author’s Note: During the course of researching this article, I discovered that one of the early works on the history of London on which Ben Weinreb based The London Encyclopedia was a two-volume history of the city first published in 1849, Handbook for London, Past and Present, by Peter Cunningham. Fortunately for those who would like to have a copy of that book as well, it has been digitized and is available for download online.
Both volumes of the 1849 edition of the Handbook for London are available for free download, in various file formats, at the Internet Archive. Each volume can be found at the appropriate link below:
Both volumes of the 1849 edition of this book are also available for free download, in .PDF and EPUB file formats, at Google Books. Each volume can be found at the appropriate link below: